Awaiting U.S. asylum hearing, Venezuelan activist faces deportation instead

Marco Coello speaks to a crowd in Miami asking for the freedom of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López in 2015.
Marco Coello speaks to a crowd in Miami asking for the freedom of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López in 2015. El Nuevo Herald

Marco Coello, a 22-year-old Venezuelan, was at the U.S. immigration office in Miami on Wednesday awaiting a routine asylum hearing when authorities pulled him aside.

But instead of being allowed to make his case that he had been illegally imprisoned and tortured in Venezuela amid national protests in 2014, the U.S. officials informed him that he had overstayed his visa and was being detained.

Coello’s lawyer, Elizabeth Blandon, with Blandon Law in Weston, said that in her two decades of immigration work she had never heard of anything like this.

“This will have a chilling effect on anyone applying for asylum in this country,” she said.

Calls to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services were not immediately returned.

The detention comes as the Trump administration has stepped up the deportation of undocumented migrants. But Coello’s case is already raising eyebrows on Capitol Hill.

On Wednesday, the office of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, said the lawmaker was reaching out to the Department of Homeland Security and the White House and is working to secure Coello’s release.

On Twitter, Rubio said he hoped it was a simple misunderstanding. “Otherwise, how can administration condemn [President Nicolás] Maduro for jailing his opponents if we jail his opponents too?” he asked.

Venezuela, once again, is being rocked by month-long anti-government demonstrations that have left more than two dozen people dead, including administration sympathizers and security forces. The opposition is demanding elections, humanitarian aid and the release of political prisoners. The socialist administration has responded with tear gas and beatings.

In February, exile groups in South Florida appealed to the White House to take Venezuela’s political and economic chaos into account before deporting Venezuelans, saying it could be “condemning them to death.”

Read More: Venezuelan exiles ask Trump to halt potential deportations

Blandon said her client was visibly shocked as he was taken away. “Marco was tortured the last time he was detained,” she said. “He did not take this well.”

Blandon said she’s been talking to human rights groups and United Nations experts to see if anyone had faced this type of issue.

“Nobody has ever heard of this before,” she said. “It just doesn’t happen.”

This story has been edited for clarity